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The First Time News Was Fit To Print, III

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I'm back with the third installment of our series exploring the first time The New York Times mentioned a particular subject. See the previous volumes here and here.

John F. Kennedy
February 24, 1938*

Joseph P. Kennedy, new United States Ambassador to the Court of St. James, sailed for his post yesterday....His five daughters and three of his four sons were at the pier to wish him bon voyage. John F. Kennedy, who is in Harvard, had caught cold while training for the swimming team and was not present.

Harry Potter
December 17, 1998

s_Stone.jpgThis season's most popular piece of children's literature so far is Jamie Lee Curtis's "Today I Feel Silly and Other Moods That Make My Day," a book that many critics said had a title so precisely accurate that it would not make many school libraries. The other books on the fiction best-seller list are "The Night Before Christmas" (Putnam) by Clement C. Moore and "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" (Scholastic) by J. K. Rowling, certainly closer to belles lettres than Ms. Curtis's work.

Saddam, Smurfs, microwaves, and more all after the jump!

Saddam Hussein
December 25, 1971

saddam-and-hassan.jpgAhmed Hassal al-Bakr, the 57-year-old ailing President of Iraq, is nominal party chief, but it is generally believed that the strongman of the regime is Saddam Hussein Takriti, the young, ambitious vice chairman of the ruling Revolutionary Command Council and assistant secretary general of the Baath party. "Baath fills a vacuum in the Arab world; it offers the Arab left an alternative to Communism," is the opinion of a seasoned Arab diplomat. The Iraqi regime in fact considers itself an island of Islamic progressivism surrounded by the conservative royalist regimes of Iran, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the sheikdoms of the Persian Gulf and the military regime in Syria.

The Smurfs
October 14, 1981

Smurf1.gif''Morning television offered a curious lineup today,'' writes Eugene Tonkonogy of Manhattan. Here is the listing: MAGILLA GORILLA GROOVIE GOOLIES KWICKY KOALA TROLLKINS SMURFS ''Hard to make a choice!'' says Mr. Tonkonogy. [From 'Metropolitan Diary']

December 13, 1981

smurftoy.jpgThey're two inches tall and very German. They're blue and they live deep in the forest. In fantasy, there are only a hundred of them. But they've sold in the millions. They're Smurfs - in Europe, Schlumpfen - and according to Wallace Berrie & Company, which distributes the product in America, 30 million have been sold here since the first one crossed the Atlantic in 1979. This year domestic sales will total about $20 million.

The Internet
November 5, 1988

1988computer.jpgThe virus was detected in part because a design error led it to create many copies rather than a single copy on each machine it attacked. Computer researchers said the copies were like echoes bouncing back and forth off the walls of canyons. The program eventually affected as many as 6,000 computers, or 10 percent of the systems linked through an international group of computer communications networks, the Internet.

Microwave Oven
March 31, 1949

earlymicrowave.jpgThough the electronic range that cuts cooking time from hours to minutes will not be possible for home kitchens for several years, one of it chief drawbacks is being overcome....The new combination of "regular" electricity with microwave energy will enable products to brown and to crust as well as cook through. One will bake bread in a matter of minutes without any sacrifice of the delicious crisp surface. incidentally, with this new oven it will be possible to use metal pans, something that cannot be done with other similar appliances, in which glass and paper utensils are used.

May 5, 1957

microwave.jpgThe electronic range, despite its magic appeal to homemakers, is still a luxury item. Since 1954, when the first practical microwave oven was offered on the market by Raytheon, about 2,500 of these appliances have found their way into American homes. But the high price tag still keeps the range out of most kitchens. Today the average cost of an electronic range runs about $1,200. One model, combined with a standard oven below it, is priced at $1,390.

* JFK was previously mentioned several times, including an August 1936 recap of Westhampton sailing results. He finished last if you don't count Patrick O'Gorman, who didn't finish at all. His cold was, to me, far more interesting. Plus I'd transcribed that paragraph before realizing it wasn't the first mention of JFK. So it stays. With an asterisk.


T.jpgWant complete access to The New York Times archives, which go all the way back to 1851? Become an NYT subscriber.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Opening Ceremony
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These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:

501069-OpeningCeremony2.jpg

Opening Ceremony

To this:

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Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]

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